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ED 363 898 






CS 508 379 

Vartabedian, Robert A.; Vartabedian, Laurel 

Humor in the Workplace: A Communication Challenge. 
Nov 93 

15p.; Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the 
Speech Communication Association (79th, Miami, FL, 
November 18-21, 1993). 

Speeches/Conference Papers (150) — Viewpoints 
(Opinion/Position Papers, Essays, etc.) (120) — 
Information Analyses (070) 

MF01/PC01 Plus Postage. 

^Communication Research; Communication Skills; 
*Humor; Interpersonal Communication; Literature 
Reviews; ^Organizational Communication; Research 

Organizational Culture 


This paper examines some of the various findings 
contained in the current literature on humor in the workplace. In 
recent years, the communicative role of humor in the workplace has 
received attention — particularly in management-related publications. 
Consequently, the paper explores the emergence of humor as a 
management tool and the advantages and disadvantages of humor in work 
settings. Finally, specific applications of humor in the 
organizational setting are identified and directions for future 
research addressed (for example, the need for research on the "fine 
line" between humor and harassment in the workplace and longitudinal 
studies on how humor affects productivity and turnover rate of 
workers). Contains 25 references. (Author/RS) 


* Reproductions supplied by EDRS are the best that can be made * 

* from the original document. * 

Humor m the Workplace: A Communication Challenge 

Robert A. Vartabedian 
West Texas A&M University 

Laurel Klinger Vartabedian 
Amarillo College 

Office oi Educational Resairch and improvement 

Hjhis document has been reproduced as 
'received Irom the person or organization 

originating it 
r Minor changes have oeen made to improve 
reproduction quality 

Points ot view of opinions stated m this docu- 
ment do not necessarily represent otlioa. 
OERi position or policy 



Robert A. Vartabedian received the Ph.D. from the University of 
Oklahoma in 1981. He is currently a Professor of Speech Communication 
at West Texas A&M University. 

Laurel Klinger Vartabedian received the Ph.D. from the University of 
Oklahoma in 1981. She is currently a Professor of Speech 
Communication at Amarillo College. 

Mailing address: 95 Jynteewood, Canyon, TX 79015 
Telephone: (806) 655-0874 

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication 
Association, Miami, November, 1993. 




This essay examines some of the various findings contained in the 
current literature on humor in the workplace. In recent years, the 
communicative role of humor in the workplace has received added attention-- 
particularly in management-related publications. Consequently, this essay 
explores the emergence of humor as a management tool and the advantages 
and disadvantages of humor in work settings. Finally, specific applications of 
humor in the organizational setting are identified and directions for future 
research addressed. 


Humor in the Workplace: A Communication Challenge 

The use of humor in the workplace is a growing area of research 
interest—particularly in management-related publications. While in the early 
1980s there were a handful of articles about humor on the job, within the past 
four years management publications have discovered that humor plays an 
important role in corporate culture. As with other communication choices in 
organizations, the more astute one is regarding the uses and misuses of humor, 
the more effectively one is perceived. Therefore, it is imperative that 
individuals understand the negative and positive consequences of humor, and 
that managers understand that organizations can have a sense of humor. 

Most observers of the organizational communication setting agree that 
humor in the workplace often starts with a particular state of mind or 
atmosphere. Managers or supervisors help set a tone that fosters or squelches 
humor. This essay will examine the emergence of humor as a management 
tool and the advantages and disadvantages of humor in work settings. Finally, 
specific applications of humor in the organizational setting will be identified 
and directions for future research addressed. 

The Emergence of Humor 
According to Ross (1988) recognition of humor as a tool for the manager 
of the 1990s is in stark contrast to the industrial era's tools of control and 
intimidation. Jaffe (1990^ reinforced this suggestion when he noted that there 
was only one page devoted to employee morale in a 1922 edition of The 
Management Handbook . Today, many organizations still resist the idea that 
fun and work are compatible. Buhler (1991) stated: 


Just as corporate America took time to evaluate the 
necessity for conflict in organizations in the 80s, 
so too it will be with humor in the 90s. The astute 
manager of the 1990s will recognize this acceptance 
of humor in the workplace, (p. 21 ) 
The efficacy of humor as a tool has been observed by Davis and Kleiner 
(1989) when they noted that productivity can be increased by well-timed 
humor. They linked the timing issue with good leadership. A good leader has 
learned how and when to use levity to meet goals. Thomas ( 1988) concluded 
that humor in the workplace is neither inherently good or bad. It is not a 
panacea for production or morale problems, but it may be particularly useful 
because it helps people view a problem in a different light. Additionally, 
humor can help define the personality of a company. . . or give a company 

These aspects of humor, largely ignored until the late 1980s, have 
suddenly caught the business world's attention. Funny business has become 
serious business as evidenced by a new breed of consultants sometimes called 

humor experts'" (see Allison, 1991 and Russell and Calvacca, 1991 ). Both large 
and small companies, have hired such consultants for advice on cultivating 
spirit, alleviating stress, improving communication, and diffusing conflict. 

Malec (1992) noted that humor consultants helped ease the Tennessee 
Valley Authority through a transition phase with the use of humor. Allison 
(1991) expressed the belief that C.W. Metcalf & Company's workshop called 

"Humor, Risk, and Change," was a probable component in a 10% increase in 
employee productivity at Digital Equipment Corporation in Colorado. 

Metcaif and Felible (1992) justify the need for the role of humor 
consultant with disturbing data about American workers. They report that a 
survey by Northwestern National Life Insurance found that 34% of U.S. 
workers said they had considered quitting their jobs in 1990 because of 
excessive stress while 14% actually did quit their jobs because of excessive 
stress. Humor is a key to reducing stress and related burn out. 

Metcaif took his Humaerobics training to over 150 companies in 1991. 
His training emphasizes three skills, which include: (1) the ability to see the 
absurdity in difficult situations, (2) the ability to take oneself lightly while 
taking one s work seriously, and (3) a disciplined sense of joy in being alive 
(cited in McKenna, 1992, p. 20). 

The emergence of humor as good business is apparent. The advantages 
to the business environment are many, but initially the parameters for 
constructive uje of humor must be established. An examination of the impact 
of humor illustrates that the power of humor is elusive and sometimes erratic. 

The Essence of Humor 
Recognition that communication is a complex phenomenon with many 
intervening variables is a prerequisite to understanding the effects of humor 
in the organizational setting. Communication scholars have been aware of the 
fact that humor is very situational for quite some time. What one person finds 
amusing, another may find annoying or offensive. Organizations are a 
complex mix of communication settings and what is effective in one context, a 
small group, for example, isn't necessarily effective in a large meeting, or one 
on one. 

Studies have been inconclusive regarding attitudinal shifts as a result 
of humor, although most would agree that humor does help maintain attention 




Mendleson, Oolen, and Adams (1986) reiterated what scholars in the field of 
communication have noted previously: 

Humor is very subjective, and conditions under which 
it does or does not enhance perception of message and 
speaker are unclear. Humor can alienate as readily as 
it can endear. Guidelines include: (1) matching it to the 
situation, (2) knowing one s limitations and one s audience, 
and (3) avoiding offensive humor, (p. 8) 
Krohe (1987) cautioned that there is a gender gap in humor-men and women 
enjoy different kinds of humor. And while some consultants recommend self- 
effacing humor, it can backfire in certain situations. Status differentials and 
perceived competence are variables which would no doubt influence the 
effectiveness of self-effacing humor. 

The Positive Effects of Humor 
The literature on humor seemingly could be divided into four major 
topic areas in regard to the positive application of humor: leadership 
enhancement, social benefits, psychological, and physical enhancement. 

Sleeter (1981 ) noted a decade ago that a good manager must understand 
humor and its uses. He suggested that a manager without a good sense of 
humor was at a distinct disadvantage because this type of individual is 
inhibited, and unemotional. Davis and Kleiner (1989) explored leadership and 
humor and emphasized what types of humor leaders should use and what ends 
humor might achieve. Stress reduction, greater understanding of 
managements goals, and motivation were three suggested benefits of humor. 



Gender also influences the use and impact of humor. Russell and 
Calvacca (1991) reported that a recent study on influence in the business 
setting concluded that men were much more likely than women to use kidding 
and joking as an influence tactic. In her widely read book on male/female 
communication, Tannen (1990) suggested that conversation in mixed-group 
interaction is a male domain. Men typically are the "humorists" in a group 
situation. Women are more concerned about being taken seriously and less 
comfortable holding "center stage in a group." 

Noting that women have avoided humor for fear of not being taken 
seriously in work settings, Barbara Mackoff, author of What Mona Lisa Knew: 
A Woman's Guide to Getting Ahead in Business by Lightening Up ( 199 1 ) 
believes that being too serious can prevent women from getting ahead in 
business. She suggests that humor is a powerful tool which will project women 
into key roles in companies. Equally plausible is the possibility that women 
have attained enough status in some organizations to now feel empowered to 
use humor. Perhaps it wasn't lack of humor which caused lack of status, but 
rather lack of status which resulted in lack of humor. Lower status persons 
may be more reluctant to use humor (and exert the control to deviate from 
task-related pursuits) in business settings. 

Of central importance to leadership, regardless of gender, is Russell and 
Clavacca s (1991) assertion that, "Demonstrating a sense of humor is one way of 
conveying authority and self-confidence--attributes that are very important 
in a leader" (p. 128). Finally, Buhler (1991) reported that research has shown 
that managers displaying a good sense of humor are given more opportunities 
in organizations than those without a sense of humor. 



The social benefits of humor, such as group cohesiveness, reduction of 
status differentials, diffusion of conflict, team and trust building among 
diverse groups, are perhaps the most widely recognized value of humor. 
Company teams have been in existence for decades and are used as a fun, 
informal setting which can foster positive socialization. Activities like dress 
up days, parades, walkathons, or even a bulletin board for posting humorous 
materials can help bond people. 

Berg (1990) says that among other uses, humor helps individuals view 
themselves and others more objectively and helps build rapport, trust, and 
acceptance of diversity among team members. Towler (1990) stated that happy 
workers are more productive because enjoyable interaction with coworkers 
reduces the need to get social support outside the workplace. Employees who 
enjoy being together are more supportive and productive of one another. The 
common experience provided by shared humor can serve as a binding force 
for employees. 

There appear to be many psychological benefits reaped from the use of 
humor. Morreall (1991) posited that humor promotes health, mental 
flexibility, and smooths social relationships. He emphasized that humor 
involves the mental advantages of "balance or novelty, ambiguity, change, 
divergent thinking, creative problem solving, and risk taking. Of particular 
interest is the suggestion that humor might supplant or ward off unproductive 
negative emotions associated with a loss of control and therefore defuse 
conflict and reduce feelings of hostility. Gorkin (1990) stated that humor 
appears to stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain, which, in turn, sets off 
divergent, creative thinking which allows individuals to see broader 



applications, novel connections, and otherwise elusive relationships. Towler 
(1990) touted humor s ability to counteract boredom and stress on the job. 

Numerous articles address the value of humor as a stress reliever 
(Gorkin, 1990; Buhler, 1991; Caudron. 1992; McKenna, 1992.) Humor may 
function in a many different ways to relieve stress. There is convincing 
evidence that laughter can be good for physical health by relaxing muscles, 
strengthening the immune system, and increasing the flow of oxygen to the 
brain (Suchetka. 1992). Laughter increases brain activity and appears to 
release the body's natural pain-killing hormones (Smith, 1991). 

While the advantages of humor for leadership and the physical, 
psychological, and social functioning of the individual compel the use of 
humor, there are possible negative effects as well. 

The Negative Effects of Humor 
As stated previously, humor is extremely subjective. Russell and 
Calvacca (1991) state that you should ask yourself whether your audience 
shares your point or view. "If you f*el inclined to say. I hope this won t 
offend anyone, but . . . ' forget the joke" (p. 128). If your comment is sarcastic, 
irrelevant, or highly self-deprecating, it probably isn't a good choice to use 

Similarly, humor of malicious intent can be a very counterproductive 
force in the workplace. For example, sexual or racial slurs can be quite 
destructive and offensive-causing a threatening atmosphere. Given 
increased public awareness, sexually oriented humor has become a delicate 
issue. It is important to recognize that humor can be aggressive, hostile, and 
an assertion of power when it is sexist or racist. Malicious or negative humor 



not only destroys cohesiveness but jeopardizes companies from the standpoint 
of harassment litigation. 

Other problems can result when humor evolves into horseplay. Some 
disadvantages of too much horseplay can be a disruption of productivity, 
damaged property, and safety hazards (Duncan, Smeltzer, and Leap, 1990). 

Finally, there are certain professions and workplace situations where 
humor must be used judiciously. Physicians and airline pilots, for example, 
are involved in professions where a level of seriousness is attached to their 
credibility. Thus, as noted by Buhler (1991) inappropriate or overuse of 
humor can be as detrimental to the workplace as the total absence of humor. 

Applications of Humor 
Humor as a trend in management is distinguished in recent years from 
past years by the conscious notion that it is a tool for improved morale and 
productivity. Examples of some of the ways in which humor has been utilized 
help illustrate that the new organized levity" goes beyond a funny quip or a 
wry observation. 

A recent development at a few innovative companies is the use of what 
is called a "humor room' (Suchetka, 1992). Eastman Kodak Corporation has 
such a room where employees can go watch videos. A designated "humor 
room" could be especially useful in companies that rely on creative 
contributions such as advertising agencies. 

Meetings are another place where companies are experimenting with 
humor. Some companies have used a revolving jokemaster" to provide a joke 
to open meetings. Surprisingly, one opening joke can set a positive tone for 
an entire meeting (Ross, 1988) 

e 11 



Jaffee (1990) cites numerous examples of ' management by fun" and 
suggests that often highly competitive industries with pressure to perform 
turn to fun to reduce tension. A "joke of the week board" or a blackboard for 
"graffiti" may tell a manager what is on people's minds through the less 
threatening venue of humor. 

While dress up days, Halloween parties, and ice cream socials send an 
organization-wide message, managers have an opportunity to send subtle one- 
on-one messages to employees. Mackoff ( 199 1) cites an example of a personnel 
manager whose department was given an unpleasant and thankless task. They 
arrived at work the next day and found their last names on their nameplates 
changed to Dangerfield--since they weren't getting any respect. 

It is evident that there are many forums for humor which can improve 
morale, motivation, and general enjoyment on the job. Based upon the 
literature currently available, there are several areas which deserve further 

Future Directions in Research 
The fine line between humor and harassment needs to be more boldly 
drawn. In the evolution from discouraging humor to encouraging humor in 
the workplace, a determination of appropriate behavior is still elusive. As 
humor is encouraged there may be more research dealing with handling 
humor which a worker finds offensive. 

More longitudinal studies are needed on how humor affects productivity 
and the turnover rate of workers. Present claims appear to be more anecdotal 
than statistically supported. 

erJc l 2 


Researchers need to further examine the occupational dimensions of 
workplace humor. Are certain professions more conducive to humor than 
others? How important is humor and how can it be implemented on assembly 
line jobs? What types of humor work best in particular contexts? What types 
of humor proliferate in various contexts? For example, researchers might be 
surprised by the use of "gallows humor"' in some professions. 

Communication research should be updated regarding the impact of 
humor. Without an understanding of the complexity of the communication 
context, management research may provide simplistic advice on the effect of 
humor. The field of communication should be at the forefront of examining 
humor in the workplace. 

Finally, Stephen Covey s (1989) notion of " personality ethic" versus 
"character ethic" provides a framework for understanding the communicative 
use of humor. Covey suggests that the personality ethic which has guided 
management is a short term, quick fix, set of "skills designed to change people 
from the outside in. Character ethics, on the other hand, are deeply held 
convictions which guide ethics and change people from the inside out. As 
such, it is important that managers truly believe that humor is an intrinsic 
part of living and working. If humor is seen as a manipulative tool in the 
arsenal of management, it will ultimately fail. If humor is viewed as a natural 


outgrowth of healthy people and healthy organizational communication, it ! 
will succeed. 

o 13 




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